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21st Century Voter Outreach Combines Shoe Leather And Technology


In an election season that's this close, who wins or loses could boil down to who's getting people to the polls. One national conservative group is on the ground targeting Florida voters, and they're using technology, not to promote a candidate, but to push their own agenda.


A team of activists pound the sidewalks on a hot morning in the Brandon Brook subdivision, just off State Road 60.

"Hi there, I'm Grace," said Grace Martin, who leads a team into the Brandon complex. " I'm out with Americans for Prosperity. We're out talking to neighbors about government spending today."

The streets here have names related to wine - Chardonnay Place and Crystal Goblet Court. Most of the homes are well maintained - colorful crotons and miniature statues guard the front doors. As do a lot of little dogs.

Americans for Prosperity says it isn't campaigning for anyone. But today, they're knocking on doors to get people to vote against Congressman Patrick Murphy, the Democrat vying to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. The group is financed in part by the Koch brothers, who have spent the last several years working to build a force on the ground to support conservative causes.

Martin, of Land O'Lakes,  is one of the field organizers. Martin has worked on several different campaigns in the past, and says politics is in her blood. Her dad is an elected official in Maine, so she grew up putting stamps on mailers, knocking on doors.

She said it's worth it getting doors slammed in her face, because she believes in what Americans For Prosperity stands for.

"I was really drawn to the organization because they're so issue-focused. And so focused on making life better for the average person," she said. "Which is what I always hoped to do working on campaigns, but then you get into campaigns, and you realize it's really about the candidates."

Communications Director Andres Malave said Florida is their biggest target, with 16 offices and 165 staffers scattered through the state.

"Right now, we are in what's called express advocacy. We are expressly advocating for the defeat of Patrick Murphy, because we've identified him as being just absolutely terrible on a litany of issues," he said.

This is all personal for Malave. His conservative beliefs were grounded from his childhood growing up in Venezuela, where he saw the Socialist policies of Hugo Chavez practically bankrupt a once-rich nation.

He said they don't always support Republicans. The group had a hand in killing Gov. Rick Scott's plans to enlarge the Enterprise Florida fund, used to lure businesses from other states. Malave said it's about protecting the taxpayers.

"We are strictly issue-based," he said. "We are already thinking about what we're going to be tackling in the 2017 legislative session up in Tallahassee, what issues are going to be coming through the Legislature and how we can make an impact on those policies. And that has nothing to do with who's pushing the bill, or what politician in particular or any political party. "

And they do this with some serious technology.

Back out in the Brandon subdivision, Grace Martin taps her tablet, and up pops a little house icon on a map of the street she's on. The group's data mining drills down on each house they want to target. The house icon turns green when a survey is completed or red if the homeowner wasn't receptive to their message.

"It''s all laid out. I mean, I can follow where I'm walking, so I know when I'm near the house or how far I need to go, so it makes my job much, much easier," she said.

On this day, Martin knocked on about 50 doors, and only one man was willing to talk - just a little. The man squints through a narrow opening in his door, interested and seemingly perplexed at the same time, as Martin reads from her prepared notes.

"And as a Congressman, Patrick Murphy supported the Export-Import Bank, which gives billions in taxpayer-funded handouts to foreign corporations, in places like China and Saudi Arabia, do you think it's ok for him to use your taxpayer dollars like that?"

His response: "I don't know who Patrick Murphy is, I would have to look into it first."

This is what voter outreach has become at the start of the 21st Century. It's not about candidates - it's a combination of technology and old-fashioned shoe leather, focused on winning.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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